There are some fundamental propositions that one must understand in approaching the distinction between monotheism (belief in one God) and polytheism (belief in many gods).
The original religion of ancient mankind was monotheism, i.e., the worship of the one, true Supreme Being. This is demonstrated both by the testimony of the Bible and by a study of anthropology. (We have introduced testimony for the anthropological evidence of man’s original monotheism in our little book, Biblical Studies in the Light of Archaeology, pp. 5-6.)
Genesis 1 begins with the affirmation that “God created the heavens and the earth.” The term “God” in the Hebrew Bible is
In his famous work, Synonyms of the Old Testament (1871), Robert Girdlestone noted that
Elohim is found some 2,555 times in the Old Testament. In 2,310 of these cases the title refers to the true God, while in the remaining 245 instances the word is employed in a variety of “lower senses” (2000, 31).
Elohim is a plural term. Various explanations have been offered for this plurality. For example, some have suggested that the word is designed to reflect the plenitude of divine majesty (i.e., the vast array of sacred qualities incapable of being expressed by a term of singularity).
Some scholars, however, suggest that the term subtly previews the concept of the Trinity, which, consistent with the well-recognized principle of progressive revelation, blossoms fully and gloriously into bloom in the New Testament.
With reference to the plural form, Girdlestone emphatically stated:
“It is clear that the fact of the word
Elohimbeing plural in form does not at all sanction polytheism” (Ibid., 34).
Significantly, the corresponding verb, “created” (
bara), is singular in number, which indicates that the divine, creative activity was a unified action (cf. Genesis 1:1 with John 1:1). Thus, this noted Hebrew scholar, while refraining from a definitive statement, nonetheless declared of the name,
[T]here is certainly nothing unreasonable in the supposition that the name of the Deity was given to man in this form, so as to prepare him for the truth that in the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons" (Ibid., 34-35).
It is important to observe that the biblical writers do not hesitate to affirm that God is “one” (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4; James 2:19), while using plural pronouns to reflect divine activity (cf. Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8).
Jesus himself said, “I and my father are one” (John 10:30). Note that “I” and “my father” reflect two personalities. The verb “are” is plural. And yet, “one” is a singular numeral.
In the Greek Testament the numeral
hen (one) is a neuter gender form, suggesting identity of nature. In this sentence, therefore, there is an affirmation of dual personalities sharing an identical nature.
But how can God be both one and three without a contradiction being involved?
The solution lies in the fact that the numerals are employed in different senses. God is one as to the divine essence or nature. Deity is three in terms of distinct personalities—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19-20; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:14).
At some point following the origin of humanity, however, various peoples begin to digress from the idea of the one God. Men commenced to personify the various forces of nature (e.g., the sun, moon, stars, fire, air, water, etc., and worship them).
In the ancient Vedas (“sacred” literary compositions) of India, there are hymns directed to these entities. Hindu theology, with its numerous gods, developed from the concept of pantheism, the notion that, ultimately, everything possesses the “god” nature. This is not radically dissimilar to the modern tenants of New Age ideology.
Polytheism attempts to cling to man’s basic religious instinct, i.e., the need to believe in some higher power, but rejects the one, true deity to whom man must be religiously and morally accountable.
Some cults, ostensibly associated with Christianity, also argue for certain forms of polytheism. Mormonism is one of these.
The gods of the ancient pagan world were heterogeneous. They were vicious, warring beings, characterized by utter immorality. They mated and produced new gods; they brutally fought and destroyed one another. They were diverse in temperament and nature.
Note Paul’s brief descriptive in his letter to the saints in Rome:
Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Romans 1:22-23).
There is therefore a vast difference between the deity of the Scriptures—the one, eternal, perfect-nature being, manifested in three persons—and the discordant, temporal, factious and fictitious gods that were fabricated in the digressive imaginations of a rebel human family.